Conspiring Prayer - Reservoir Church
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How To Pray

Conspiring Prayer

Steve Watson

Jan 28, 2024

A few years ago, our oldest child had become an adult and was living away from home for the first time. And I was struggling with how to not worry about her all the time. You can never fully protect another person, you can certainly never fully control another person, which is good, but the loss of control and the loss of proximity with your own kid – it’s a big change in the life of a parent. It’s been the biggest change in my life the past few years. 

So a few years ago, when this was first happening, I was wondering – when you’re far away from someone else, how do you best love them?

I was talking to one of my mentors about this when I was just getting to know him at the time, and he’s famously a very spiritually wise, insightful person, so I asked him:

Tom, do you think I love my daughter more by praying for her, or just sending her $100? 

And at first, he was like:

probably send her the $100. 

And I was surprised. I thought: this is a religious man. I look up to him spiritually. He’s supposed to pick the “pray for your daughter” option and help me better understand why, like how that was going to help her.

I asked this question, after all, because I had been shifting in some of my own experiences of prayer, and starting to wonder,

  • when you pray for someone else from afar, how can that influence them?
  • Does it do them any good?
  • Does it show them love? 

And I guess I’d hoped my mentor would have an answer for those questions while commending me to pray for her more. 

But Tom, at least at first, was like, hey, won’t sending her the $100 really show her that you love her? 

I thought: sure, it would. 

And if you pray for God to do good things in her life, will that make God love her any more? 

And I thought: I hope not. I hope God loves her entirely already, that God’s already doing everything God can for her. I certainly hope God is like that. 

I thought of my mentor’s definition of love. Tom’s a theologian. He publishes a lot. 

And he’s defined love like this. He writes, 

To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic or empathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being.

So my emotional attunement and care for my kiddo – sympathy, empathy – that was already there. Now how could I act intentionally to promote her overall well-being?

And at least that day, Tom lobbied for the $100. Which surprised me.

I tell you this little story because today in our winter series on prayer, I want to talk a little bit about praying for others. Not so much praying for people face to face when they’re with you, like our prayer team does every Sunday for whoever wants that. 

I want to talk about praying that God will do things for people or other creatures that aren’t there with you. 

How does praying for others work? What’s the value? 

And it’s just one sermon, it won’t be all the truth on this topic, won’t even be all my truth, all my perspective.

But I want to introduce you to a way of praying for others that might be different from what you’ve tried before and has been helpful for me. 

It’s a phrase that a therapist and theologian named Mark Karris has coined. It’s called conspiring prayer. 

Conspiring prayer. 

Conspiring prayer engages us as partners with God when we pray for others, or when we pray for anyone or anything in all of creation.

Let’s read a scripture to get us going on this.

It’s from a little letter in the Bible, one called James. I’ll actually read two bits from James and go from there. 

Here’s the first bit, from the fifth chapter.

James 5:13-16 (Common English Bible)

13 If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing.

14 If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

15 Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven.

16 For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. 

So at first, it seems to side more on the: pray for that person you love who’s far away. There’s no mention of sending them $100. Tom.

After all, it says:

Prayer can help heal. James encourages us to pray for one another.  

 But let’s unpack a little what this seems to say and not say about prayer.

One, it’s like prayer can be good for you. If you’re suffering, try – it might help. Just like if you’re happy, sing. It’ll feel good. 

I think that’s great advice by the way, the second part. As someone that whistles, hums, sings out loud a fair bit, I’m shocked by how few people do this stuff, in public at least. Me, sometimes I sing little songs I make up while skipping down the street with my dog. Keep your eye out for it, yeah. But I guess I’m like: if you’re happy and you know it… 

Why keep it in? This city, we’re a little too cool – in the wrong way, like a little too locked inside sometimes, I think. So: if any of you are happy, they should sing. You heard it here.

But back to prayer. It can be a comfort, a solace if you know how to be close to God, to go there when you’re suffering. That’s good advice too. 

After that, there’s a lot about going to other people and asking for prayer. 

When you’re sick. Also, when you’ve sinned. You’ve shown up to some part of your life as not your best self, or not the child of God you are deep down. That can leave a mark, on others sure, but on ourselves too. So James is like, confess that, share it, and the prayer you can give one another there – God loves you, you’re forgiven, God give my friend strength to forgive themselves, to let it go, to make amends, to make things right if that’s called for or possible. That can be freeing and encouraging. 

Pray for one another. There’s healing there.

There is a caveat to that, I suppose. James talks about “elders” you look to for prayer. And talks about the prayers of righteous people.

I don’t think he means only old people can pray effectively, or only official church leaders – like pastors. I also don’t think he means that self-righteous people, super-religious people are the only ones whose prayers God hears either. (I hope not!) I just think there’s an acknowledgement that there are people we can trust with our vulnerabilities, and there are people we can’t.

Confess your sins, but not to anyone. Be discerning. Confess to someone you can trust and who won’t give you back toxic shame or anything else unhelpful. 

And people who are living with integrity, that seem to be in good relationships with others, that seem to have an authentic way of praying with God themselves, their prayers are going to be more useful to you. So ask them. People who seem at ease with faith.

You know what James doesn’t talk about though. He doesn’t say much of anything about praying for people who aren’t there with you. He has face to face prayer in mind. You can’t touch people you’re not with. You can’t anoint them with oil, touch with some oil, as a symbol of the Spirit of God, you can’t do that if you’re not there.

I’m not saying James has anything against praying for people when you’re not with them, it’s just he doesn’t really emphasize that so much. I think he’s aware that praying for someone when you’re with them seems to have more power. 

For what it’s worth, the little bit of modern research on prayer agrees. Face to face prayer, with a safe, empathetic listener who can pray for your healing, who can offer safe touch while praying – with or without oil – that has had measurable impact on people’s well being.

The few attempts, though, to measure the impact of prayer offered for someone from afar, have not been successfully measured to have had impact.

That doesn’t mean they don’t. I think it can be great to pray for who and what you care about from afar, but the impact of that we’ve not been able to measure like prayer in person. 

So maybe that’s part of what Tom had in mind when he was like, Steve, go ahead and send the cash to your kid. You know that will have an effect. Maybe.

Or maybe he had this other bit from James in mind. This is from chapter two:

James 2:14-17 (Common English Bible)

14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?

15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.

16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?

17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

So James here is the original BIG NO to the whole “thoughts and prayer” strategy regarding people’s suffering.

You know, what politicians say after every mass shooting. I have not intention on making these events less frequent. But: our thoughts and prayers are with them. 

James is like:

those are the kind of thoughts and prayers you can keep to yourself, thank you. They are useless. 

Faith is no good if it doesn’t result in faithful activity. 

And while James doesn’t say this explicitly, he kind of implies that saying a prayer for someone – God, can you give them some food and clothes tonight, just not from me – he kind of implies that doesn’t count as faithful activity. 

Quick prayers like that from afar are easy, for the person saying the prayer, but James at least says: this is not what faith looks like. It is certainly not what love looks like. 

How do we put this together with what James is saying?

1.Prayer is really good for us when we’re down.

2. People we can trust, and people who are in relationship with God, we should have them pray for us when our body or our inner self has lost its way. Those prayers will help. 

And also….

3. Don’t pretend a quick prayer from afar is what faith looks like, or what love looks like, if that’s all you’re willing to do.

We can’t save everyone, that’s for sure, we can’t even try to love everyone. No shame in that. But I think James is implying: faking it doesn’t do anyone any good. 

How do we put all this together when we think about prayer? 

After all, there are so many questions when it comes to praying that God will change things in the world or love or help others. 

Can I list just a bunch of the questions that I hear you have as your pastor, or that I have sometimes. 

Questions like:

-Does God need our prayers to do things? If so, why? And if not, why bother?

-Is God not already doing what God can to help people?

Questions like:

-Can we make God do more of anything?

-Is our prayer for others for our sake? For their sake? For God’s sake?

Questions like:

-Does prayer for God to do things in the world even work?

What are we doing? What is God doing in all this?

One way of praying that doesn’t answer all these questions but I think leans into them faithfully is what Mark Karris calls conspiring prayer.

Conspire means to agree together. 

These days we usually use it for conspiracies, like people agreeing together to do bad things, or bad things in our imagination that aren’t likely even true. Conspiracy theories.

But the first meaning of this word, where it comes from, is to agree together because you breathe together.

Con- meaning “with” and “spire” meaning breath. 

And so to conspire with God is to seek to breathe together with God and to agree together on something like an action plan. 

Here’s what that looks like, with the example of my kid first leaving home.

My kid’s not close by. My heart is still with them. But it’s smothering, it’s creepy to text and call my kid all the time. So I don’t.

Instead, I say to God:

My God, my heart is aching for my kid. I want so much for them. And to the degree I worry about them, it’s because I love them so much, more love that fits inside here. 

What should I do with this?

And maybe I can pause for a moment and breathe with God.

Maybe I notice that God loves my kid just like I do – so much heart, so much good intention, such big feelings.

I say I notice – how do I notice this about God? Maybe I feel it. Maybe I hope it. Maybe I believe it. Faith, hope, and love, after all – that’s the way of Christ, the Bible says. If God’s a good parent, if God is love, of course God has all this love for this one person in particular. 

And maybe just that moment of breathing with God, that God has all this love too, maybe that calms me a little. Maybe there’s some hope there.

One of our kids used to get anxious sometimes, and sometimes I’d try this thing I first saw on a TV show, where I’d hold their face in my hands – gently, with permission, or I’d offer a hug, and we’d just stay there for a moment, and breathe together, while I say:

it’s OK. It’s OK. We’re here.

And I feel like prayer is partly this. It’s faith that God is breathing with us, offering a hug, or hand on the face, or an arm around the shoulder, breathing with us, saying:

I’ve got you.

And when I remember this in prayer, I realize: God has room for all my thoughts. God has time to listen. 

So maybe I tell God all that I want for my kid, all that I wish for them.

I’ve heard people in small group settings when we pray, say: God, I wish this and I wish that. And I used to think that was a sign they hadn’t learned to pray. Like come one, you’re just making three wishes. 

But now. I feel like: that’s not a bad way to pray, honestly telling God what we wish for. We don’t know if that’s what God wants, we may not be sure that God can make it happen, at least single handedly. But we believe God’s listening, and that’s a start.

So I tell God some of what I wish for. 

So I feel like God has room to listen

And if I’m breathing with God, con-spring, maybe I get curious about what God wishes for my kid, and maybe I wonder if that’s exactly what I’m wishing for, or maybe I wonder if God has a different picture of what’s best for them.

No way of knowing for sure, but that gets me curious, and that’s good for me. We love better when we’re curious, when we don’t have a tight grip, but open hearts, open minds. 

And then conspiring prayer takes a third step – beyond breathing with God, beyond wishing together, conspiring prayer says to God: what can we do about this? 

What can we do about this?

And it’s a we? Like God and me. 

Because maybe God can do things I can’t. Like God can inspire good people to come into my kid’s life, or God can inspire my kid themselves to turn toward hope, or to try something hard that might really be good for them. Maybe God’s already doing this.

  • Or who knows?
  • Maybe my wishes even inspire God a little? 

Not because God needs us for good ideas exactly? Probably not. But God’s a really good listener and what we have to say has an effect on God. That’s the way the Bible stories go, at least. 

But maybe I can do things no one else can too. Or maybe other people can do them, but they won’t. Or maybe there are things lots and lots of people need to do, and I’m one of them.

So I pray for my kid, and I remember: they really need some encouragement. I have some unique capacity to encourage them – to remind them of their best qualities or to let them know I believe in them. So I think: ah, it is time to send a text or make a call, not to give advice or nag them, but just to tell them how much I believe in them.

Or maybe I write a letter, or put a little care package together.

Or maybe I remember my kid seemed worried about money, and I don’t think money will solve any of their problems, but I do know that if they see $100 in their Venmo from me, out of nowhere, for no reason, that’s really going to surprise them, and in really good surprise kind of way.

And they could use a good surprise today, can’t they?

Do you get the idea?

Conspiring prayer is more work than just saying: God bless so and so. Or God help so and so in this kind of way.

But that’s what faith looks like. That’s what love looks like. It takes some work.

And whether it’s praying for your oldest kid who just left home, or praying for your pastor, or heck, praying for peace in Palestine and Israel, and praying for justice for terrorized and the dispossessed, and the body and soul-sick and hungry in that land, conspiring prayer acknowledges that there is so much we can not do, but there is also always something, something we can do. And conspiring prayer is taking a quiet, reflective moment and wondering with the unseen God of the Universe what that might be today, or tomorrow, or this year.

Conspiring prayer on this front got me in a room with a few Palestinian and Muslim leaders and one of our senators this month.

And conspiring prayer has got me sending cash and letters to my kid too. 

But conspiring prayer isn’t just about action. It’s about being with God, like God really is the kind and wise and beautifully loving mother and father that faith in the way of Jesus Christ says God is.

This is a God we can be with, that we can breathe with, that we can share all our wishes with. And that out of the calm, and the love that union brings, that we can imagine together just what we both can do.

This is prayer that availeth much, my friends. A partnership with the living God born out of breathing and agreeing and acting together. 

I encourage you to give it a try, or to try again, see how it goes.